Friday, February 5, 2016

It Only Hurts When I Kiss

I can brag if I want to.

Evening found me back at VCU Cabell Library for the second night in a row to hear comic artist Keith Knight talk on the subject of "They Shoot Black People, Don't They?" (did anyone under 40 get the reference?) but before he even took the stage, my entertainment was the people around me and there were lots of them. The lecture was packed.

"I realize that I become an artist between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.," the student behind me told his friends in all seriousness. "I write myself notes but when I look at 'em the next day, I realize they'd take too long to execute so I don't bother."

In other words, being an artist is haaaard.

The clutch of students on the other side were grilling a girl with multiple piercings. "Doesn't that one hurt when you get kissed?" a boy who sounded like he wanted to kiss her asked. "It's just, like, pressure," she answered. "But that one hurt the most to get." Nods and murmurs of empathy.

The guy in front of me, not a student, suddenly began thrashing around, looking under his chair, in his coat pockets, everywhere. "I can't find my phone!" I watched as he checked under chairs within a six foot radius, all the while looking desperate.

"I hate that so much of our lives are in these little devices," he said, looking at me for affirmation.

Not for me, I don't have one, I told him. "Don't brag!" he commanded, sort of smiling. Or was that just what jealousy looks like?

Tonight's speaker, Keith Knight, took the podium looking as hip as you'd expect an ex-San Franciscan to look and announcing that he'd discovered Sally Bell's all by himself this afternoon, enjoying a cupcake. "I just found it!" he said, clearly marveling at his luck. "Okay, if I've won all those awards he just mentioned, how come you haven't heard of me?"

It was a damn good question once he began talking and sharing his work. Like one about the benefits of black men having a male blow-up doll.

Five black men standing on a corner = a gang. Five black men standing on a corner with a white blow-up doll = basketball team and coach. That sort of commentary.

Or one called, "If signs told the truth" with a picture of a Denny's sign with the sub-head, "Serving blacks since 1997," sadly a fact brought about by a D.C. Denny's that refused to serve black Secret Service agents. In 1997. 

Washington is my hometown. Are you kidding me?

His single-panel comics were as sharp and funny, just pithier. A TV screen announces that they have a picture of the man who's been terrorizing downtown. The brown guy thinks, "Please don't let him be Middle Eastern" and the black guy thinks, "Please don't let him be black" and the white guy thinks, "Ha, ha, they'll never catch me."

Funny and tragic at the same time.

Interesting as it was to see examples of his 20 years of artistry, the most compelling part of his talk was his plea for the races to really talk. "We need to talk about race until whites get uncomfortable so we can get beyond it."

Despite his geeky, mild-mannered persona, even he has been stopped by police. He was on Fulton Street in San Francisco, hanging posters with a staple gun for his band's upcoming show when he was surrounded by police who claimed to be on the lookout for a 6' black male robber.

A white friend of his happened to be riding by on the bus and noticed that his friend was surrounded by cops, so he jumped off the bus and charged the scene, hoping to clear his friend. Did the cops react to a white guy running at them the way they had to a black guy using a stapler? They did not. "That's white privilege," Knight said. "It's time for whites to start using their white privilege for good."

Another comic read, "All Lives Matter* (*restrictions apply, see skin color for details).

"You can't just be non-racist anymore, you've got to be actively anti-racist," Knight implored.

He talked for almost two hours, showing comics, telling stories and, like Reverend Campbell earlier in the day at the Historical Society, reminding people that right now is our Civil Rights movement and if we don't participate, history will be worse for it.

Impressive as the new library's third floor terraces and kitchen facilities are, it's already apparent that the level of programming they're bringing in is the real game-changer. I can't wait to see what's next.

My plan had been to go to Black Iris' opening afterwards, but the talk had gone long and I wasn't sure it was still happening. Of course, that didn't stop me from walking over there from campus, where I found a room buzzing with familiar faces to see Mickael Broth's "La Voie Sacree," a meditation on a World War I battle in Verdun, France and the supply line (la voie sacree) to that embattled town.

I knew of Broth from his wizard mural at the bus depot, but I hadn't known that he'd come to Richmond to be a graffiti artist, only to be arrested and jailed for ten months as a result of it.

Much of the work in this show was shiny and colorful and, at first glance kind of abstract, but looking more closely revealed elements of the war and how it shattered lives and perceptions. Buildings crumble, artillery flies through the air and, of course, being WW I, noxious clouds of gas hang over it all. A large scale sculptural installation in the back further drew the viewer in.

A friend suggested that the exhibit would be an excellent choice for a French museum devoted to that era. Another, whom I'd seen two of the past three nights at events, talked about similar sculptural work by a local puppet maker. I ran into a comic artist/VCU prof who had also been at the Keith Knight talk and been as blown away as I was. I chatted with the artist who's now 25 months sober about how much great stuff is happening this weekend alone.

When they finally threw us out, I walked down the block to Maple and Pine to join the Man About Town for a drink. So much walking in the cold, damp night air had me asking for a cup of tea and our bartender obliged with Quirk's special lavender blend, a tea that smelled more feminine than I do (not the tea's fault) and the ideal antidote for my cold insides.

Meanwhile, the MAT regaled me with stories of his current acting job as Ben Franklin for a FOX series ("That's right, Bill O'Reilly is signing my paycheck!"), a gig that's had him on set off and on since September. He even pulled out photos to show me how they've aged him from a younger man to an 81-year old.

All around us, Maple and Pine was hopping, with tables full of revelers and hotel guests (who was that handsome guy at the bar?) bustling throughout the restaurant and lobby. Being a late night type, I love how lively that space stays long after other places flag.

Not that I have pictures to prove it because, well, I have no cell phone and not because I misplaced it.

And, yes, that's bragging.

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